I said these words to my world-traveler grandma last Saturday night after I told her I loved her and kissed her waxy, unresponsive cheek for the last time. I hadn’t planned to say those words and I’m still not entirely sure where they came from. But within 30 minutes, she was gone.
I had arrived at the Sacramento hospital almost exactly one week earlier to the hour. Grandma had had a stroke four days prior as she was meeting with an electrician to discuss repairs on a rental property.
Yes, my 92-year-old grandma was still working as a real estate agent with five more years left on the license she renewed near her 90th birthday. I still remember how she almost contained her confusion and disdain 15 years ago when I told her Rob and I were retiring before our 40th birthdays. Although “tired” often described Grandma, “retired” never, ever would.
|Classic Working Grandma pose|
Two days after I arrived at Grandma’s bedside, my dad and his sister made the profoundly difficult yet profoundly clear decision to take their mother off life support. Her pain, discomfort, and frustration were obvious. Although she could not make a sound, Grandma’s eyes screamed for relief from the hell she was trapped in.
That morning, before the decision was made, I arrived in ICU to find Grandma resting alone. My parents had not yet arrived for the day and my aunt was meeting with a doctor in another area of the hospital.
I went to Grandma’s right side – the side that was still moving occasionally – and held her hand as I said hello. She squeezed my hand in response. Although Grandma had been moving her right leg and her right arm and hand for several days, it wasn’t always clear that the movements were voluntary. Every once in awhile she could move her extremities on command but those moments were fleeting.
But this moment was not.
Sensing something was different, I asked Grandma a few yes-no questions, repeated them, and asked them in different ways to confirm she actually was communicating with me via her hand squeezing.
When I was certain we were talking, I embraced this extraordinary gift with everything I had.
I thanked Grandma again for her example, her legacy, her lessons. I thanked her again for inviting me to accompany her to Istanbul while I was in college. I told her again how amazing it was to hear all those guests at her 90th birthday party speak about what an honorable, trustworthy, integrity-fueled businesswoman she was and how I loved bragging that she was my grandma.
And then I told her that her important documents had been found and her wishes were known. Through a series of pointed, painfully real questions that I never thought I would ask another human being, Grandma gave her family permission…if not a direct order…to let her go.
For the next five days we waited. Sometimes patiently, sometimes impatiently. Sometimes through tears, sometimes through blank stares of numbness. Sometimes bathed in laughter of stories, sometimes drenched in exhaustion and confusion.
For days…which really felt like months…I had been asking God to please let Grandma pass in a whisper. Just a simple last breath. No pain, no struggle, no sound. Just one last breath. And all glory to God, that is exactly how she left this world. I couldn’t be more grateful.
I am also grateful that I got to know my aunt. We are only eight years apart yet our lives have never really intersected very much. But she and I ended up being a pretty spectacular team as we held vigil in Grandma’s hospital room and allowed each other sleep and showers. In the midst, we shared our lives and our truths. We cried, we laughed, we hugged. And on Saturday night in the final hours of the bar of the Crowne Plaza hotel, with Grandma’s favorite vodka tonic with a twist of lime, we toasted.
Back at home, I’ve spent the last few days decompressing and trying to grasp what I just experienced. I have cried a fair bit, but the majority of my tears have been more from gratitude than sadness. Gratitude for Grandma’s life, the memories, what I learned from her, the parts of her that I am just like.
I suspect more will reveal itself over time, but at this moment I know Grandma lives on in me in a handful of ways. She gave me stubbornness and independence. She gave me thick wavy hair and deep-set eyes. She gave me a reluctance to accept being told I can’t do something and a fire to prove I can. She gave me a complete disinterest in cooking and a proclivity for keeping foodstuffs way past their expiration dates. She gave me a love for travel and a desire to explore and experience. According to multiple nurses, she gave me youthful skin that belies my actual age. She gave me the complexity of being decidedly adult while also embracing being downright goofy.
|I was two months old. When Rob first saw this|
photo a few years ago, he said, "So that's where you
get your eyes."
|Not every family would think this an appropriate |
photo op on a woman's 80th birthday. It's one of
my favorite photos of Grandma and her menfolk.
|My mom and Grandma modeling their|
thrift store treasures.
Grandma was a feisty, classy lady who always had her nails done and couldn’t stand an untucked shirt. She lived in Japan and Turkey thanks to the Navy, and travelled the world thanks to boundless energy. She visited every continent, including Antarctica to see the penguins when she was 79.
Until the day she had a stroke, Grandma drove and texted and Facetimed. She did her best to understand computers and keep her Quicken files updated. She played checkers with her great grandchildren and posed for pictures with her favorites from “Dancing with the Stars.” She loved San Francisco and Dairy Queen and paused each day for ice cream the way Brits take time for tea.
|Artem was reportedly quite swoon-worthy.|
Grandma was only 42 when I came along. She had a husband, her own real estate business, and an almost 8-year-old daughter. She wasn’t quite ready to be a grandma; can’t say I blame her. When she was widowed without warning just eight years later, her focus became even more about work and survival. Can't say I blame her for that either.
|I was 10 days old. Note Grandma's business|
attire and two purses bursting with paperwork.
No doubt a phone was ringing in the background.
Our relationship wasn’t typical; she definitely was not a textbook grandma. I remember I spent my 13th birthday in a banquet hall at an awards ceremony honoring her work as a realtor. I opened my gift from her the next day. It was an electric pencil sharpener. As much I really wanted earrings to go with my newly pierced ears, I have to admit I used that piece of practical office equipment for years.
Grandma and I finally started to get to know each other when I was in college and she invited me to join her on that trip to Istanbul to visit my aunt who was stationed near there. Other grandparents take their grandkids to Disneyland; I got to go to Turkey.
We spent the occasional holiday together or passed through town and shared a meal. We exchanged cards and letters and sometimes a phone call. She was an intensely private lady so it was hard to get close to her, yet I have a hunch I understood her better than she suspected.
I try to make it a priority to tell the people in my life how much I appreciate them. Although words would not have gone unspoken if Grandma had passed immediately from the stroke a few weeks ago, I will forever be grateful for the extra time I was given to say goodbye to her. And for those 15 minutes alone in ICU while she squeezed my hand and “talked” to me for the last time.